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Dogs Use Non-Aggressive Fighting to Resolve Conflicts


Many incidents of seemingly aggressive behavior between dogs are simply examples of appropriate communication. Dogs (including youngsters) often recognize this even when we don’t. For example, we were at an agility trial with Acorn, an adult female Doberman. We met Acorn’s breeder as well as the breeder’s adolescent female Doberman, Sparkle. Acorn was standing at my side when they approached. Sparkle walked directly toward Acorn and stood facing her less than a foot away. Acorn flashed her teeth, and the young female took a few steps backward. The breeder said, “Aren’t you going to correct Acorn?” “For what?” we asked. “For aggression; she just showed her teeth at my dog,” the breeder asserted. What she mistook for aggression, we understood as skillful communication between two dogs.

Another vivid example of agonistic behavior involves two young Dobermans. Meadow was a year old when we brought home six-weekold Jimmy. During the last year and a half, we have watched the relationship between these two develop. They are crazy about one another — they play together every day, sometimes for many hours, and when they run, they often move in parallel so that the sides of their bodies are touching. Most of the time, Meadow and Jimmy appear to be doggy soul mates, but there is another side to their relationship that is less clear-cut. To deal with conflict situations, Meadow and Jimmy often escalate their communication to the point that it appears as if they are shouting at one another. When this happens, they can be so noisy that it’s hard to carry on a conversation even in the next room!

Both dogs rear up on their hind legs, boxing like kangaroos. Their mouths are open, their teeth are exposed and it looks ugly. However, these quarrels are over as quickly as they start, and both dogs are fine. In fact, they will typically play afterwards; following an episode that lasted a little longer than usual, they ended up spooning on a dog bed designed for one. Jimmy and Meadow remind us of a particular type of stable married couple described by relationship psychologist Dr. John Gottman. These couples argued often, without holding back. Yet when they weren’t fighting, they tended to have more fun with each other than the stable couples who rarely quarreled.




Barbara Smuts, PhD holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a doctorate in behavioral biology from Stanford Medical School. A professor of psychology, she teaches courses in animal behavior at the University of Michigan. She has studied social behavior in several wild animals, including olive baboons and chimpanzees (East Africa) and bottlenose dolphins (coastal Western Australia). More recently, she has been studying social relationships among domestic dogs and is working on a book on this subject.


Illustration by Katherine Streeter
*A. Capra et al. 2011. Flight, foe, fight! Aggressive interactions between dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 6(1):62.

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